Discussions are under way between the United States and Canada on putting customs inspectors on each other's borders. The move, designed to prevent the chance of nuclear cargo reaching major cities, is also causing concern over Canadian sovereignty.
Millions of tons of cargo arrive at North American ports each year on freighters. After the September 11 attacks, special attention has been given to the possibility of terrorist materials or weapons of mass destruction being smuggled into major North American cities.
In the ongoing war against terrorism, American and Canadian authorities are hoping that by combining efforts, terrorists will be prevented from sneaking into major cities like Los Angeles and New York to detonate a nuclear device commonly referred to as a "nuke in a box".
Official discussions started late last year, when Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and then Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley signed the Smart Border Declaration.
There are already over 130 U.S. Customs officers stationed at major Canadian airports, where they screen America-bound airline passengers. The spokesperson for Canada Customs says the current initiative is different from that at airports, because the focus will be on potentially dangerous cargo, not passengers and their luggage.
Michel Proulx says that, though the fine details have yet to be worked out, this effort will create a security zone for all of North America. "The purpose behind this," he said, "is to ensure whether it be nuclear devices in a box — weaponry, terrorists — anything that can pretty well cause harm or threaten national security in a North American perimeter security. That's the purpose behind these initiatives is to ensure the people of North America could feel confident that we're as vigilant as possible in ensuring our safety and security."
Previously, cargo was inspected when it arrived at a port, but was not always inspected at its port of origin.
U.S. Customs spokesperson Jim Michie said the new approach will take the some of the uncertainty out of cargo ships arriving in populated American cities like Boston and Los Angeles. Mr. Michie said, "This would allow us to pre-screen these containers at ports of origin rather than waiting on our shores for these containers to arrive in our ports. They of course would be screened again when they arrive here, but we think it's important to screen them before they even are loaded on to a ship."
A pilot project will start March 25 that will place U.S. agents in Vancouver, Montreal, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Canadian agents will be assigned to Seattle and Newark, New Jersey. If successful, the pilot will be implemented at ports up and down the borders of the United States and Canada.
But, not everybody likes the idea of having more U.S. inspectors based in Canada. Steve Staples, a spokesman for the Council of Canadians, an Ottawa-based watchdog of public policy, said U.S. Customs Agents moving into Canadian seaports is a further erosion of the country's sovereignty.
For him, putting American agents on the shorelines of Canada's borders, is the start of turning Canadian law enforcement over to the United States. "Well, this is an issue we're very concerned about," he said. While we're talking about only a few agents now, I think it raises the spectre a lot more U.S. law enforcement personnel in Canada doing work that has traditionally been part of Canada Customs and even police forces in the past could potentially be taken over by U.S. personnel. It raises a number of very fundamental questions about our relationship with the United States and our own sovereignty and ability to enforce our laws in our own jurisdiction. So, it's very concerning to the Council of Canadians.
As it is now at Canadian airports, American agents based in Canada will not carry weapons.
There is approximately $1 billion of trade between the United States and Canada every day. While embracing increased security, business is concerned it will slow down the movement of goods between the two countries.
Charles Kelly is the President of the Cascadia Institute, which promotes cooperation between the northwestern United States and western Canadian provinces.
Mr. Kelly said any increase in security has to be balanced in allowing the free-flow of goods between the two countries. "Well, I think this is positive," he said. "I think anything that moves we have the dual responsibilities of security and I think it's in everyone's interest that we have our borders are secure as possible. And at the same time we've got the movement of goods and people and I think what they're really trying to do here is to make the borders more efficient is by screening the low risk — screening out the low risk from the high risk.
Officials are not able to say how long the pilot project will last and when the initiative to share customs agents will be fully implemented.
The next step could be the "Container Ship Security Initiative". This could have U.S. Customs inspectors working on docks in so-called "super-ports" like Hong Kong and Rotterdam.
In the December border agreement, both countries also agreed to share other information. Immigration efforts might be combined at several airports around the world to pre-screen travelers headed to North America. By stationing both American and Canadian agents abroad, it is hoped this will prevent undesirables from legally entering one country, only to enter the other illegally.